Drugs researchers: ‘No such thing as victimless cocaine’

Of all the people receiving treatment for problems to do with addiction, 45 percent are primarily cases of alcohol addiction. Second on the list is cannabis (17 percent), third (14 percent) are opiates such as heroin and number four (11 percent) is cocaine. Beeld Rosa Snijders
Of all the people receiving treatment for problems to do with addiction, 45 percent are primarily cases of alcohol addiction. Second on the list is cannabis (17 percent), third (14 percent) are opiates such as heroin and number four (11 percent) is cocaine.Beeld Rosa Snijders

Coke users are well aware that their drug of choice is steeped in serious criminality and are even prepared to pay more for ‘clean’ coke. That’s the conclusion of Antenne, a large-scale study of drug use. However: there’s no such thing as victimless cocaine.

Jop van Kempen

The wallpaper on Ton Nabben’s phone is a collection of ecstasy pills. “Occupational hazard,” says the criminologist from Hogeschool Amsterdam with a smile. “That’s what happens after 25 years of work in this field.”

Last week, together with prevention worker Judith Noijen of the Jellinek Clinic, Nabben published the 25th edition of Antenne, a large-scale study of drug use. Using questionnaires, one-on-one interviews and drug tests, it paints a clear picture of drug use among youth and young adults in Amsterdam. All the research is anonymous. Amsterdam is the only city in the Netherlands that measures the status of narcotics and users so precisely.

Nabben participated in the first Antenne study in 1993. At the time, the initial study was motivated by the enormous popularity of ecstasy, which is still a big seller. Supported by municipal funding, the researchers were able to feel out the city. The municipality based its policy on their findings and this resulted in a clear vision of a new generation of drug users, in particular recreational use.

Nabben has seen how drug use has evolved. He remembers the days when coke users had to rely on shady men at discos. Compare that to the current state of affairs: dealers use WhatApp to distribute their menus for intoxicated nights out. You can get cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine for your clubbing nights. Anyone who wants a slower pace can ask the same dealer for GHB, erectile agents and sleeping pills. It’s all delivered quickly, usually by scooter. “Dealers have become completely service-oriented,” according to Nabben.

Increased use

Over the past 25 years, the absolute amount of stimulants – including alcohol – being used has risen, for the simple reason that more young people have moved to the city, says Nabben. “The number of students and young people in higher education has more than doubled to 110,000 in the past 15 years. There are more places to go out, too.”

Even though alcohol and tobacco are still the most commonly used – legal – stimulants, their use has fallen over the past 25 years. In contrast, ecstasy, cocaine and ketamine – all illegal – have become more popular (see graphic).

The use of illegal drugs is fertile ground for drugs-related criminality, however it hasn’t led to the kind of major public health problems caused by the heroin epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s. Drugs-related fatalities do occur – the Dutch National Drugs Monitor registered 262 in 2017 – but tobacco (20,000 deaths annually in the Netherlands) and alcohol (2,000) are bigger public health issues.

Besides fatalities, legal and illegal stimulants cause problematic use and dependence. “We estimate that 10% of users are not in control of their habit,” says prevention worker Noijen. “Those people drift away from goals they actually want to achieve, or they develop health problems.”

Of all the people receiving treatment for problems to do with addiction, 45 percent are primarily cases of alcohol addiction. Second on the list is cannabis (17 percent), third (14 percent) are opiates such as heroin and number four (11 percent) is cocaine.

Noijen and Nabben study the drugs world from the perspective of users. Nabben’s specialist knowledge is the reason Pieter Tops and Jan Tromp interviewed him for their report entitled De achterkant van Amsterdam (Amsterdam’s Flipside), which deals with the shadow economy that has emerged as a result of drug profits and which was presented last month.

Nabben understands that in the wake of lawyer Derk Wiersum’s assassination – most likely ordered by coke kingpin Ridouan Taghi – politicians are advocating a tougher crackdown on drugs-related criminality. But, he says, we also have to use different approaches to get drugs-related crime under control.

“There is a global consensus among many economists, criminologists and historians that a hard-handed approach is not effective in combatting the drugs trade,” according to Nabben. “Despite this approach, drugs have become cheaper and higher in quality. Prisons are full because of drugs-related criminality.”

“Add to that the sad fact that in Latin America alone, there were an estimated 144,000 drugs-related deaths in 2017. So it’s not rational to ignore alternative options. For example, governments of several countries should be allowed to work together to remove drugs from the illegal market and regulate them. That way you take the wind out of the criminals’ sails.”

Bloody noses

Users are also not blind to the misery that the drugs trade causes, claims Nabben. Researchers for Antenne asked coke users in Amsterdam if they were aware that they were helping criminals make a profit. “They know they have blood on their noses, in a manner of speaking,” says Nabben. “But they also say they’re willing to pay more than the usual 50 euros for a gram of clean cocaine. International research from the Global Drug Survey indicates that 85 percent of coke users are willing to pay up to 25 percent more for clean, blood-free cocaine. Only there’s no such thing.”

Noijen and Nabben do not expect governments to legalise cocaine use any time soon. It’s self-evident that lifting all restrictions leads to increased use and more problems, as the case of nitrous oxide shows. In 2016 the substance was removed from the Dutch Medicines Act and placed under the Commodities Act. The result of that legalisation in the Netherlands has been more sales of nitrous oxide and increased use, especially among youth of immigrant descent.


That’s why Nabben is more in favour of regulation, whereby the government supplies the substance under strict conditions and provides targeted information. That would be feasible for MDMA, for example, the main component of ecstasy. “There are studies being carried out now that show MDMA also has medical applications. You can treat war veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder with a combination of MDMA and therapy. That would make legalisation easier.”

Cocaine is a different case, says prevention worker Noijen. There are currently no therapeutic uses for cocaine. “Moreover, the drug causes more loss of control and addiction that MDMA.” In short, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for all drugs, but we should be thinking innovatively about the problem.

Underlying the ubiquitous use of drugs is the desire to experience a different kind of reality. Nabben doesn’t envisage that changing. “The yearning for a high is huge. It’s part of human nature, I think. The government can’t rein that in, although it can use legislation and regulations to determine who uses what… to some extent.”